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Tackling the Impossible with 3D Printing: Making Ski Boots Comfortable

By February 28, 2014. 3D Printing, 3DP Applications, Consumers, Featured, News

If you were invited to the join the Massachussets Institute of Technology Global Founders’ Skill Accellerator (MIT GFSA) course and had access to MIT’s world class labs, business tools and engineering resources, what would you invent?

For a group of Scottish students from Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh University it was about finding a very practical and innovative way to address the issue of comfortable skiing and snowboarding, even with rental boots.

It may seem like a minor issue — and it’s definitely a 1st World problem — but it is also a highly practical solution. Millions of people ski and snowboard casually every year and fitted in-soles are way too expensive to be considered a viable solution for many of them. 3D Printing (and accurate 3D scanning), however, can drastically reduce the costs of producing a finished custom in-sole. The system, however, needs to be highly accurate so the skill-set required goes from complex mechanical engineering to advanced software development.

What it takes is exactly the set of skills that the six MIT-supported founding members of start-up ALPrint have.

Chris Balmer is a mechanical engineer who is leading the development of the specific materials that will be used for the in-soles, while Rowan Border is working on the software for the 3D scanner, which should be able to create an accurate model from just a few photos along with weight and height data. To develop the software Bowden will use information collected by Ross Flavell, who is developing new methods of analyzing how people move when skiing.

Gavin Balmer, an electrical and electronic engineer, is working on actually building both the 3D printer and 3D scanner that will be adopted. The business related aspects will be handled by Arran Ingram, who has developed the business plan, and Alec EdgeCiffe-Johnson, who wrote the marketing strategy and is looking for sources of secondary revenues to fund the team’s R&D efforts.

Tailor made in-soles are shaping up to be a very interesting area for 3D printing technologies, as they currently are often extremely expensive and produced through complicated and time consuming artisan manufacturing processes. A British firm, FDM Digital Solutions, and an Australian one, 3D Orthotics, are already exploring possibilities in the every day life arena but no one has yet fully explored the sports and winters sports segments. If ALPrint’s project proves successful, finding secondary revenues and new areas of business should be as easy as putting on slippers.

  • Kevin Quigley

    I was waiting for this one to pop up somewhere. Interesting that the leader into this is the cost of custom insoles for sports use like skiing, running etc.

    The problem here is that this market is in fact very well served by some well established companies. Sidas introduced the custom footbed in the 80s. I had my first Sidas insole fitted in a ski shop in Val d’Isere in 1985. I think cost around £40 equivalent. The fitting took about 20 mins. Since then every time I buy new boots I replace the insoles, and now almost every shop has the equipment.

    Personally I don’t think cost is the issue. 3D scan, print in appropriate materials etc I doubt the cost will come down even to levels of existing solutions once you factor in the retailer margins. Regardless of how you take the sole imprint, the. Fitting of the insole is the critical element, and how it sits in the boot or shoe. There is a world of difference between a well fitted insole and a bad one, and that comes down to the skill of the fitter.

    Be interesting to see where this goes but I suspect it is technology research for its own sake at the moment rather than commercially thought out development. At the end of the day the retailer will operate it, buy it, sell outputs from it. It has to be fast ( the whole process taking no more than 45 mins) and it has to offer considerably more than existing solutions do with more retailer margin.

    But here’s the thing. No amount of scanning and technology will match a foot to a boot. Boot fit is not scientific, it is about trying on lots of options, and as much about ‘feel’ as measurement. There are so many variables that affect fit beyond just the sole support. But if they do manage to achieve fit perfection I’ll be first in the queue!

  • Kevin Quigley

    Just looked into this in more detail. It appears they are planning to use a smartphone app to ‘scan’. You take a photo of your foot, the app sends off to HQ where it is ‘compared to a database of feet’ and they print your ‘customised’ insole and send it to you.

    Sorry guys, no. Here’s the thing. Sports insoles are generally purchased with a new boot or during a boot fitting session. Every ski boot last is different, so the insole has to be trimmed to fit the individual boot for best results. The idea that you cary around your 3D printed insole at slip it into rental boots is OK for generic results, but the end result is worse than say a Sidas custom footbed ( which start around £40). How the footbed sits in the boot is critical to the stability and fit.

    The whole point of an insole is to remove pressure points from the sole, as though you are standing on sand. Sidas fitting uses a soft silicone type platform you stand on to shape the insoles. I’m not seeing how taking a photo can better this. The proposed system is ( from the information available) slower (days rather than minutes), less accurate ( photo based rather than direct impression), less customised (generic boot vs customised to your boot) and not significantly cheaper ($40 vs £35…but does the $40 include postage?).

    My cynical hat says this is a project set up to give some folks more time on the snow doing trials…nothing wrong with that if you can get away with it! But as a commercially driven project? No. Not unless all the PR surrounding it is inaccurate.

  • I think we’re still going to be using the traditional method of wearing in for a little while.